Two golf journalists take aim at Tiger Woods, lightly fictionalizing his sex scandal into a juicy novel that is all fun and games.
It isn’t often you’ll see Fortune reviewing fiction. But The Swinger is so thinly veiled it almost isn’t a novel. It is, however, a devilishly fun summer read for sports fans, celeb-gawkers, or anyone that just likes a good story.
The story, meanwhile, is one that almost everyone knows: Though not overtly acknowledged, it’s the story of Tiger Woods, down to every last detail in his career path thus far. The golf phenomenon subject of The Swinger is Herbert X. “Tree” Tremont, but it’s very clearly Tiger’s story: Famous golfer, of seemingly infallible class and talent, turns out to have a carefully guarded double life of sex, sex, and more sex (oh, plus gambling). All the major players are here, with only the slightest alterations to their back-stories, or in some cases none at all.
Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg, known to those in the business as “Steiny,” shows up as Andrew Finkelman (Tree calls him “Finky”). Tree’s wife, Belinda, is an Italian supermodel (Tiger’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren is Swedish). The high-profile doctor from whom Tree receives surgery on his Achilles tendon (for Tiger it was a knee problem) is named Antoine Matteo, a coy stand-in for Anthony Galea, the controversial doctor now accused of giving athletes PEDs. There’s even a National Enquirer rag doggedly pursuing Tree and digging for dirt — here the tabloid is re-imagined as Eye of the World. (Tree and Finky call it “Eye of the Asshole.”)
The sponsorship deals, too, are all accounted for. Instead of Gatorade, Tree has Coke KO and Pepsi PEP (“the first celebrity ever” to have both, the novel explains). In place of Nike Golf NKE , Tree has an exclusive line with Arrow Golf (arrow, swoosh, none of this is much of a stretch). Tremont even has his own logo of a sequoia, which adorns his private plane, golf bag, and hats, a la Tiger’s TW emblem.
The narrator is Josh Dutra, a reporter (and clear surrogate for the authors themselves, two Sports Illustrated golf writers) who spent years covering Tremont only to accept a job as his personal press flack, a twist that is one of the few not taken from real life, but provides the arc of the novel. Now Dutra’s written the uncut story, with Tremont’s full permission.
To read The Swinger while going back and forth to some of the major press coverage from the time of the Woods scandal is to see just how closely this novel was ripped from the headlines. In one of The Swinger’s faux tabloid stories (hilariously headlined “Married Tree Tremont Swings at Night”) the first of many women to come forward, Emmy Wright, tells the paper that Tremont “pursued her relentlessly … sending as many as 20 text messages in a single day,” and says, “He would say how much he missed me … I believed everything he told me … It was much more than just sex, though there was tons of that.” It’s almost verbatim what the real-life Woods waitress Mindy Lawton told Vanity Fair in its bombshell two-part story that came out in May 2010.
The dialogue similarly mirrors reality in its presentation of the agent, Finkelman, who is as tight-lipped and protective of his client as the man who was his inspiration. Here’s what the real man, Steinberg, supposedly told a New York Times reporter that called him about the allegations regarding Dr. Galea: “I would really ask that you guys don’t write this … If Tiger is not implicated, and won’t be, let’s please give the kid a break.” And here’s Finky, in The Swinger, talking to Dutra’s former sports editor Pete, after Pete has asked for comment regarding the steroid allegations: “We would greatly appreciate it if you’d leave Tree out of it for now. I mean, he hasn’t even been contacted by the authorities … Let’s give him a break, Pete, shall we?”
None of this is a bad thing, of course; it’s merely evidence that Bamberger and Shipnuck had a whole lot of fun with this book, and probably didn’t need to spend much time agonizing over their art. That being said, the story is by no means flat or derivative. If you had any interest at all in the Woods saga as it played out, you’re nearly guaranteed to love this novel. And the writers do an exceedingly fine job in making Dutra, the Nick Carraway to Tree’s Jay Gatsby, a real character in his own right and the hero of the book. As he becomes more enwrapped in Tremont’s lies, his conscience kicks in. You begin to care about his future and feel his frustration, though he never once considers outing his boss (even joining him in sex rehab as his “supporting residential sponsor”).
Bamberger and Shipnuck have really carried Tree’s fictional universe into the real world as much as possible with gags like the book jacket synopsis, which begins, “If you thought the scandal was outrageous, wait till you experience the comeback,” as though we already know who Tree Tremont is. In addition, they’ve created Twitter accounts for Tree, Dutra, and even Mac McCausland, Tree’s caddie.
As an intern with the New York Daily News at the time of the Woods scandal, I was sent to Chelsea Piers (where they were showing the public apology on a large screen) to speak with club members about their feelings. I’ll always remember how most of the women were outraged, rather than amused. They told me, “He’s a dog” or groaned, “Puh-lease” as they watched his sad face during the press conference. In The Swinger, the public reacts more with delighted ridicule, and any anger comes mostly from the writers that cover Tremont. After Dutra’s ex-boss Pete — still the sports editor of the newspaper Dutra left — writes a brutal takedown of Tremont, Josh approaches him and asks, “Did Tree ever stand up and say he was some sort of … god?” Pete responds, “The guy was not what he said he was … How good a job were we doing?” It isn’t hard to imagine that The Swinger’s scribes felt the same betrayal — they were duped, and never knew the real Tiger Woods.
In many ways, the unfolding of Tiger Woods’ private life on a national scale was one of those “stranger than fiction” moments in American sports media. But now the fiction exists, too, and boy is it fun. In the end, The Swinger gives Tree Tremont a lot of love, and an opening to gain back public favor. Whether Tiger Woods will get that same chance remains to be seen.